In The Lady Eve, like in The Palm Beach Story, Preston Sturges puts us again into a world consisting of the rich, and the rest of us. Here, Barbara Stanwyck plays a con artist and cardsharp who ensnares a millionaire fresh from a zoological expedition, played by Henry Fonda. Like the last one we saw, this movie features funny and bright dialogue, visual humor, and a group of familiar character actors who often appear in film after film.
Going over some recent critical responses to The Lady Eve, I hesitate to add too much interpretation. In the next film we’ll see, Sullivan’s Travels, Veronica Lake refers to movies with a great deal of social significance as “deep-dish”, and the remark is not intended as a compliment. A film critic recently called The Lady Eve “a virtual embodiment of some of the precepts of the feminist movement . . .women catch on faster than men.” Stanwyck’s character bamboozles Fonda’s character for nearly the whole film. When she says, “I need him – like the axe needs the turkey” we’ve hit one of the high points in Sturges’ career as a writer-director.
Stanwyck plays a bad girl, though a comic one, not an evil one, and Fonda plays a good boy – maybe too well. Both leads draw on the stereotypes that their careers in Hollywood up to then had fashioned around their personalities. Preston Sturges often lovingly built characters for William Demerest. In this film, he plays the sidekick and not always effective protector of Fonda’s rich young man. What appears to be a galaxy of Hollywood character actors take on familiar roles, like Eugene Pallette playing Fonda’s father, and not so familiar, like Charles Coburn playing Stanwyck’s. When Pallette demands his breakfast from a corps of servants ignoring him, or Coburn deals cards to Fonda, they are playing roles that fit them like a glove. Eric Blore, who often played a valet or waiter in the Astaire-Rogers movies, gets the supreme compliment of playing Pearlie, who remarks about his neighbors, whom he beats at cards, that “you have them for a year, like a lease”.
The same critic who identified this movie as a feminist milestone said something else: “Sturges clearly loves his characters, but that doesn’t prevent him from subjecting them to comic mayhem.” I hope you enjoy both the love and the mayhem while you watch The Lady Eve tonight.